Interview with Colum McCann

Posted by Goodreads on June 4, 2013
History's high-stakes moments are fleshed out and made real in Colum McCann's fiction. From the hazardous digging of New York's subways to ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev's Soviet defection to Philippe Petit's high-wire walk between the Twin Towers, this Irish storyteller relishes the emotional details gleaned from both the power players we read about in history books and the forgotten passersby. McCann's works include Let the Great World Spin (a National Book Award winner), Dancer, Zoli, and This Side of Brightness, among others. His latest historical novel, TransAtlantic, blurs facts and fiction to startling effect as he tells the story of four generations of women descended from an Irish housemaid. Their lives intersect with the men who made three significant transatlantic crossings: abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass's visit to Ireland in 1845, the first nonstop flight made by aviators Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919, and U.S. Senator George Mitchell's mission to broker peace in Northern Ireland. McCann chatted with Goodreads about who gets to write history, making intellectual journeys, and how words can be dangerous.

Goodreads: Is the transatlantic flight from Ireland to New York a regular commute for you?

Colum McCann: It is. There was an ancient phase called the "American Wake." In Ireland, all the way up until maybe the 1950s, if you were going abroad, especially if you were going to America, you would have your own wake, so there'd be one extra person at the wake. It was very poignant, but there's also a touch of humor to it, too. People knew that once you were going away, you'd be gone forever. But now, of course, people commute back and forth.

For me personally, yeah, I'm up there in those clouds, metaphorically and literally, quite a lot. Of course, this book was a sort of return home for me in the sense that it's probably my most distinctly Irish-themed book, which is curious given that I've been writing for almost 30 years now, that it's taken me that long to actually return home—and I still call it home.

GR: There is a strong connection between the United States and Ireland in TransAtlantic.

CM: These countries are incredibly, incredibly linked together. Not only in the movement, the tens of millions of people who have gone from Ireland, but also the very obvious affect that America has had on the Irish imagination. Culturally, spiritually, in all sorts of ways, these places are extraordinarily tightly woven. There is a mythical land in Irish mythology: Tír na nÓg, "the land of eternal youth," and it was always set to the west of Ireland. When we were kids, we'd be told these stories in school about "the land of eternal youth." It always became an America of the imagination for me.

GR: Goodreads member Vicki Gundrum says, "This new book appears to be more Irish-centric than the others. Does our ancestry pull on us, create us, continue to influence who we are?"

CM: She's absolutely right. It is probably my most Irish book. It is my chance to return home. And also it's a chance to contemplate what these questions mean. We're constantly looking forward to something that's going to happen; that's the absolute human condition. So we look backward to figure out where it is that we're going to be going. And you know, I think about my kids and what sort of latticework they're built on. They're Irish; my wife is from Long Island, but she's from an Italian family, and suddenly it all gets more and more complicated and certainly I'm interested in thinking about where it is that I'm from.

GR: We no longer think of flying planes as involving strength or endurance, but Brown and Alcock's transatlantic flight was a true feat, surviving extreme cold and dangerous whiteout conditions. Are you drawn to physical achievements, such as Philippe Petit's high-wire act in Let the Great World Spin?

CM: Well, I'm a bit of an old fart now. I did take a bicycle across [the U.S.]. I have walked across Ireland. I'm still racing bicycles; I'm almost 50. But mostly my journeys now are in my imagination. I like the idea of forcing [a character] into a position of difficulty, a physical task. I also like my characters to move physically and through the world, and so presenting them with some sort of dilemma that is real and tangible is always something that interests me. So, yeah, I like the idea of tightrope walkers, I like the idea of tunnel builders, I like the idea of people making these big journeys.

With this book a lot of these journeys are intellectual journeys. Douglass [is] talking about abolition, but he's really becoming—he's becoming himself. And with Senator George Mitchell, one of the great politicians of our time, and his journey was maybe not metaphysical but beyond physical; it is intellectual. He helped various people garner our own peace, and a lot of it was his ability to be agile, mentally agile, which is fun, too.

GR: To date you have heartily ignored the "write what you know" adage, with wildly diverse characters—such as Romani harpists or Russian ballet dancers—who share little with your daily routine. Was this book and its Irish setting more of a personal endeavor for you?

CM: To be honest, this one was the hardest book that I ever had to write. Capturing the Frederick Douglass character was probably more difficult than anything, primarily because he already had his own voice, so beautiful and firmly established.

Some of the other characters, they're not so distant—but sometimes a character who is very, very distant from you is easier to write. When I wrote Let the Great World Spin, the character of Tillie, who is a 38-year-old black prostitute underneath the Major Deegan [an expressway in the Bronx]—once I had established it, her voice sort of wrote itself very quickly. And I enjoy that openness; I enjoy not being me. And I don't want to write about myself, in that sense, although every time we write something down, it is immediately autobiographical, just by the sheer fact that you're throwing a word against a page, it becomes a conscious choice.

GR: How did you begin writing this book? What was the first story that you wanted to tell?

CM: It was Douglass first. And he kept beating me, and I was unable to capture him. I'm very competitive and I don't like to be beaten. It's a terrible trait. I felt this character had beaten me, but when I embraced his complexity and sort of allowed us to be somewhat confused [by] what he's feeling, that's when it started to work for me.

And then I always wanted to write about peace. I think waging peace is so much more difficult than waging war, and I thought it was an extraordinary thing that a 64-year-old man [Senator George Mitchell]—who had just had a child—goes to a foreign country for two years and helps them to negotiate a peace. I thought, "Wow, what a great story that is." And then the other story, the first transatlantic flight. I wanted these things to be bridged in a physical way. These stories are intricately linked. Especially the male narratives are about war, they're about ownership, they're about property, and they're about achieving something physical that's beyond that, like going toward a sort of joy. And the same with the female characters because, funnily enough, like a lot of my work, it's mostly a female book.

GR: In TransAtlantic Frederick Douglass is confronted by Ireland's extreme poverty, encountering a starving woman and her dead baby, and he admits to himself, "...he had done nothing at all. He had borne witness and stayed silent." History remembers Douglass as an inspiring man of action, yet you depict him falling short. Is there always a moral imperative to take action?

CM: That's a brilliant question, and as far as I'm concerned, there is always a moral imperative. But there are different weights. For Douglass, his moral imperative, and his heart and his soul and his mind and his loyalty, was entirely pitched backward toward the 3 million people who were still enslaved in the United States, and he was still technically a slave. What I wanted to convey was that the morality got to him, and he weighed it up and made a choice of conscience. And at first I really disliked him for it. And I tried to figure out why did Frederick Douglass not—in all this time in Ireland—really speak out about it.

After a while I began to think about it on a different level. I'm sitting here right now on the Upper East Side of New York City. Five miles from here is the poorest county in the United States, in the Bronx. I'm not necessarily speaking out about that county in my work, even when I talk about poverty. Does that make me a failure with my moral imperative to say something? I have to realize my own contradictions first and then apply them to someone like Douglass. I ended up loving Douglass...he is big; he's like that Walt Whitman line, "I contain multitudes." One of the beauties of fiction is its ability to balance those sort of questions of moral imperative, conscience, and duty. So it ended up being a moment of personal revelation. But I did sway back and forth on poor old Mr. Douglass.

GR: Book One of TransAtlantic collects the men's stories, and Book Two the women's. Why these separate arenas? Did you consider alternating male and female?

CM: I thought about alternating them, but part of my project is to question the notion of what is fiction and what is nonfiction. So I like [that in] these supposedly nonfiction narratives, these fictional women appear and you have to wonder if they're true or not. A lot of people read the first chapter and it's sort of forensically true for the whole flight stuff, and people assume that Emily [McCann's fictional journalist covering the Alcock and Brown flight] is a real person.

GR: I tried to look her up.

CM: Which is exactly what I wanted people to do. I shouldn't say this, I should just go ahead and do this, but I was thinking about making a page on Wikipedia and pretending that she's real. I think that would be very funny, but it would also mess with people's notion of what's true and what's not, and I think these are important notions now. Who's telling the truth and what form of truth is it? Words are used to send our kids to war, they're used to get money from us, they're used for all sorts of good and bad reasons, and I think we should be prepared to figure out what's true and what's not.

GR: Writing with multiple points of view has become a trademark of yours. What do you find so appealing about that approach?

CM: I like the idea that the world can be looked at kaleidoscopically. That there's no absolute one truth and that we are all in this together, and so when these stories get braided together, it becomes part of one overall narrative and it meets other narratives and these things go on constantly. Also, it's kind of like music for me. I like to listen to music that's complicated and rigorous, and sometimes it'll be gentle and sometimes the cymbals will go and the piano comes in and the violin comes down, and I like to make a complicated piece of music and every character, I hope, has their particular music.

GR: Goodreads member Caitlin asks, "Was it a challenge to imagine and infuse emotion into nonfictional characters whose true legacies endure, as they are a part of our human history?"

CM: That's a great question and a complicated question and one that goes to the heart of how do we write history and how do we tell history and who has the right to tell it? One of the things that's interesting to me in writing about George Mitchell—yes, of course I was writing about the peace process, and yes, of course I was writing about historical perspective, but also in the very first page I got a chance to write about him changing his baby's diaper. And history doesn't do that. History doesn't have Roosevelt or Clinton in these smaller moments in the back of a car or just looking at the way a leaf falls. But surely these more anonymous moments are part of a grand historical narrative, too. And so, was it difficult? No, because I was able to imagine the historical narrative, and then I had to go in and try and make the figures as entirely human as I could.

GR: Goodreads member Az notes that you and many serious fiction novelists like to set works in the past rather than the future: "For me, it would be of great interest to have those imaginations offering some perspectives on what's to come." Would you consider writing a book set in the future?

CM: Wow. I'll be honest, I've never had that question asked before, because I haven't even contemplated it. It's really interesting because my relationship is primarily with the past—where we are now is wherever we have been, and so we're built up out of all these pyramids of moments that lead toward the present. And he's very right that I have never actually written about the future. Funny thing is that when I was a teenager, I liked to read Ray Bradbury. One of my favorite books was The Illustrated Man. So, who knows? But right now I'm pretty comfortable in the present, and I'm happy to talk about how the past informs the present. And I don't know if I'm good enough, smart enough, to be able to interpret what the future will be like.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

CM: My perfect writing day would be waking up at about five o'clock in the morning and going to my little cubbyhole. I literally write in the closet; I've built my desk into a closet. I have a couple of hours before any of my kids have woken up, and that's what I call the "Dream Time." I wouldn't touch the Internet, I wouldn't even make a cup of coffee, I would just go in and use that really fantastic moment when the mind is uncluttered early in the morning as the time to embark on some work.

GR: What writers, books, or ideas have most influenced you?

CM: I can point to all sorts of influences, but I suppose my dad was an enormous influence. He traveled in the United States when I was a kid, and he'd bring home books to me, and the house was filled with books. He was a literary editor of a paper in Dublin, so in many ways he would be one of the great ones. And then there's an Irish writer by the name of Benedict Kiely, who was a great influence for me early on, but you know, it might be something that I read last week. I'm friends with Peter Carey; I teach with him, and he's a great influence on me. And John Berger is a great influence. Any book that I've just read is a sort of influence in a certain way.

GR: What are you reading now?

CM: I'm reading Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers. It's really supergood. And also, I'm reading Bill Cheng, the author of Southern Cross the Dog. He's a brand-new novelist; he actually was one of my students at Hunter College [McCann teaches in the creative writing program there]. He's launching his novel today. It's fantastic. It really is fantastic. And another student of mine, Jessica Soffer! She had a book come out last week called Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Rosemary (new)

Rosemary Heller Wonderful interview.

message 2: by Glenda (new)

Glenda Bailey-Mershon Looking forward to reading this. His This Side of Brightness is among my favorite novels.

message 3: by Garsar (new)

Garsar Excellent interview. Am about half way in Let the Great World Spin and enjoying it immensely. Nice insights into the author.

message 4: by Dana (new)

Dana Chargois Let the great world spin is in my opinion one of the greatest books of our time. Corrigan feels like a member of my family, I love him.

Colum Mcann's writing style is lyrical, words flow with ease.
Reading his work feels natural, like breathing.

message 5: by Juli (new)

Juli I'm reading Let the Great World Spin, First book in a long time I am eager to consume. Wonderful writing! I plan to read all his others .

message 6: by Liz (new)

Liz Brown my favorite book by him is let the great world spin. it was wonderful, I hated finishing it. I recommended to everyone I know who likes great books. looking forward to reading transatlantic.

message 7: by Dana (new)

Dana Chargois I agree Liz, I started reading 2 pages a day trying to prolong the inevitable,I didn't want it to end.

Corrigan is probably my favourite character in literature, I was angry with Mr McCann for what happened to him.

Good thing its just a story.

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